To Blame Or Not To Blame

The phenomenon we call blame has three distinct components. First, the perception of an injury [physical, emotional or moral] or a social transgression of some kind. Second, we muster an emotional response to this perception, oftentimes anger, resentment and hostility. Third, we begin planning retribution. Each of these three components has particular brain structures associated with it.

In this post my colleagues Donna Fish LCSW and Matt May MD teach a master class dialing down blame if it’s a state we’d prefer not to be living in. The method, invented by Matt, is called Stranger On The Bus. In this live demo, translated to Polish at an international workshop in Warsaw this summer, we see Donna in real time shifting from the blame parts of her brain to the empathic parts – with a dramatic change in her feeling for an estranged friend.

Blame, a uniquely human activity, is closely related to the legacy emotions anxiety and shame. Like these emotions, blame expresses our commitment to kinship structures and the rules of conduct that maintain them. “Shame on you!” we say, in the act of blaming another.

We can further understand blame as an expression of the fight or flight response. A perceived threat activates the autonomic nervous system, making immediate changes to the brain and body. Blame might get expressed along the fight path – counterattacking someone who criticizes us. Or it might get expressed on the flight path – leading to our cutting off relationship with the transgressor.

Transgression is identified by the brain’s salience network, particularly the anterior cingulate cortex. This network then sends a message to the limbic system, particularly the amygdala, which produces our emotional responses. The strength and immediacy of these responses might contribute to a cognitive distortion we call “emotional reasoning.” “I feel he’s a bad guy, so he probably is.” Finally, the matter is referred to the central executive network, particularly the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which starts planning retribution.

An alternative to the blame response incorporates a region located above the right ear – the right temporoparietal junction or rtpj. This structure is activated when making inferences about other people’s mental states, an activity referred to as theory of mind and an essential ingredient in empathy. People who blame show reduced activity in the rtpj.

Interestingly, blocking electrical transmission in the rtpj by means of transcranial magnetic stimulation, leads to more blaming and a greater desire to punish. Increased activity in this structure is associated with considering others in a larger picture, one that is likely closer to whom they really are.

While blame is a very big business – glance at the front page of any newspaper- it is like being stuck in a bad dream. All day, every day, we walk around in a chronic state of low-grade hostility and resentment, dumping stress chemicals like cortisol into our bloodstreams and damaging ourselves physically and emotionally.

In the following presentation you’ll see Donna wake from her dream. See her open her eyes to more of the reality of whom her friend really is. The Sanskrit word budh translates as waking up. Hence the Buddha is the Awakened One. When we wake from our dreams we see each other and all things in their true condition. The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Han writes that in this moment of true seeing we fall in love with what we behold, realizing it is none other than our very selves.

About Daniel Mintie

Daniel Mintie is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's School Of Medicine. He has a private practice in Taos New Mexico, USA and teaches cognitive-behavioral therapy at universities and training centers worldwide.

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